“LIVE BY NIGHT”
Every winning streak has to end to some time. “Live by Night” will go down as the first tally in the loss column for Ben Affleck as a film director. After climbing to the top of the mountain with the trio of “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and the Oscar parade of “Argo,” there was nowhere to go but down, but this newest film is a little more than down.
Affleck puts himself in front of the camera as Joe Coughlin, a cop’s son and disillusioned World War I veteran in 1920s Boston who never wants to follow orders or take a man’s life again. Still looking for easy money, Joe moonlights as a small-time hood knocking off poker games and banks until he steals from the wrong guy, Albert White (Robert Glenister), the head of the Irish mob in town. To make matters worse, Joe falls for and has a lengthy affair with White’s flapper, high-hat-dropping wife Emma (Sienna Miller).
For a guy who plays the “never follow orders again” card and says he doesn’t want to be a gangster, Joe sure turns into one anyway. Aligning with mafioso Masa Pescatore (Remo Girone), the Italian rival of Albert White, Joe jumps from one Prohibition turf war in frosty Boston to another in sun-baked Florida. Working as a Pescatore strongman running rum in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood with his Boston buddy Dion (Chris Messina), Joe shoves past several “how things are done around here” threats, particularly from Sheriff Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper), and asserts his authority.
Raising community eyebrows and merging business with pleasure, Joe woos and marries Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), the former girlfriend of an influential Cuban businessman (hip-hop singer Miguel). Before long, Joe is living high on the hog picking up another clash, this time with the KKK (embodied by Matthew Maher). By the time more conflicts arise, clash, and return, Joe Coughlin morphs into an absurd White Savior, Irish Deliverer, and the guy it’s OK to buy booze from and lose your money to as a God-fearing Christian. No one else matters in the ensemble.
Even though this was only his second dip, Ben Affleck has gone to The Dennis Lehane Well now one too many times. Yes, Affleck is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but he is better when he allows a partner (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”) to share or a separate singular voice (“Argo”) to take over on the scripted page. Written solo, “Live by Night” is a collection of untrimmed narrative excesses.
The core of the weakness unfortunately lies in Ben Affleck’s lead character, an unconvincing and poorly romanticized criminal character. You never buy his “heart of gold” or generate quality sympathy for his soulful act (one Affleck achieved far better in “The Town”). Joe operates with more mope than menace and far too meager charm to come from a screen presence like Affleck. Blame the genre’s ingrained pedigree, but a good gangster film needs a magnetic central figure, not this hollow suit.
Affleck deserves credit for absorbing and presenting much of the entirety of Lehane’s novel, but the source material is too dense for a single film. The first and last acts are exhaustively inconsequential. Many touchstones that should be dramatic come off as unsubstantial and many of the juicier traits are unexplored. Factoring in a lackadaisical voiceover element and a limp musical score from Harry Gregson-Williams, what should pop as an edgy and taut crime thriller shot by the great Robert Richardson glacially moves with utter malaise.
LESSON #1: THE KEY TO GETTING YOUR WAY IS LEVERAGE-- Since Joe Coughlin is going to be the plain gangster with a flimsy ethical code instead of the enigmatic one you can’t tame, he’s going to let chess moves get the job done over Tommy guns and fists. Joe’s looking for weaknesses and squeezing pressure points.
LESSON #2: DON’T F--K THE BOSS’S WIFE-- Dear Lord, when does this ever work out? When does the man of vast superiority ever let that slide? Choose wisely who you consort with. There are other fish in the sea, Joe. Besides, that Zoe Saldana is quite a looker!
LESSON #3: EARN AN HONEST LIVING-- Unestablished from the very beginning, there is not one compelling motive that forces and holds Joe to becoming and remaining a full-time criminal. Want to not constantly watch your back for enemies, reprisals, and bullets? Get a real job. It’s scary that the wisest words in the whole movie always come out of Brendan Gleeson’s mouth as the father. No one else makes any logical sense.